Missionaries working with North Korean refugees hiding in China told Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Wednesday many are stuck there, facing the potential of being tortured and sent to prison camps if caught and returned home.
On average, roughly 1,160 North Korean defectors are believed to escape the country each year, according to U.S.-based NK News. Approximately 135 North Koreans defectors fled North Korea and arrived in South Korea in the first quarter of this year, 94 fewer than recorded for the same time period last year. The report attributed the decline to stricter travel restrictions and security checks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which caused North Korean defectors to remain in China – meant only as a first stop when escaping to South Korea – indefinitely.
Initially, the defectors emigrate out of North Korea and into northeastern China, with most escaping repressive living conditions under current dictator Kim Jong-un. The majority of those who stay in China reside illegally in Liaoning province, one of three Chinese provinces sharing a border with North Korea.
According to missionaries who offer outreach services to the illegal immigrants, if the North Koreans are caught trying to cross the border into China, they face punishments such as beatings under Pyongyang’s brutal Communist regime. The same fate awaits those who manage to cross into China from North Korea successfully but are caught and repatriated. China’s policy is to return North Korean refugees to their repressive state, where they face interrogation, torture, and imprisonment in forced labor camps.
On January 31, North Korea announced it would temporarily stop reclaiming defectors from China out of fears the practice could spread the coronavirus from China to North Korea. In February, North Korea issued a decree warning of lethal punishment for smugglers caught transporting goods across the country’s border with China, amid a crackdown on border restrictions during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, meant to contain its spread.
Although North Korea claims to have zero cases of coronavirus, these strict measures, along with more recent ones – like reportedly extending a national quarantine order through 2020 – suggest the country has been on the defensive, struggling to contain the spread of the virus within its borders.
A missionary who identified himself as Paul Zhang working in Dandong, a Chinese city on the border with North Korea, told RFA, “When I visited Dandong Church, there were children there left behind [by North Korean migrants]. Some of them had seen their fathers beaten to death in front of them while they were crossing the border… They escaped with their mothers but then their mothers were… discovered by the Chinese police and sent back, so the church adopted them.”
Both China and North Korea have tightened control over their shared land border in recent years, enhancing physical barriers and investing in electronic monitoring of the area, RFA reports. In addition, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) relies on the help of “red armbands,” citizens local to border towns enlisted to spy on illegal immigrants and report them to authorities. The CCP presents the monitors with red armbands to wear as a badge of party pride.
Dandong missionary Zhang told RFA, “There are people wearing red armbands everywhere in the villages near the border. There is nowhere left to hide, because there are surveillance cameras and red armbands in every village in China, and they know when someone enters the village. All of the refugees who arrived in China during the last year or so have been sent back by the Chinese authorities.”
In an effort to prevent its citizens from leaving the country without permission, the North Korean government disables Chinese cellular phone services at the border and targets for arrest North Koreans communicating with people outside the country or attempting to escape. The regime also publicizes the punishment of people caught fleeing, according to RFA.
An underground network of missionaries supports North Koreans living in China illegally, according to Zhang. Most of the organizations offering shelter and aid to North Koreans in China are churches, such as the Dandong Church Zhang works with, says RFA. These churches are largely founded or funded in South Korea and the United States. North Korean defectors who escape the north are generally sent south to South Korea, according to the report.